Written by Alexander Greco
June 7, 2020
Because this analysis ended up being so long, I’ve broken it up into two parts. Some of the ideas and arguments in this article will not be resolved until the next article.
If you haven’t watched Neon Genesis Evangelion, I would recommend doing so. Also, while this article and the next focus on the first two episodes, there are a few references to events in later episodes.
Neon Genesis Evangelion has evaded any conclusive analysis due to its complexity, depth and ambivalence. However, given the proper framework through which to understand the show, the ideas Neon Genesis communicates to us become far clearer. Much of this framework can constructed from an in-depth analysis of just the first two episodes. With this analysis, we can understand Neon Genesis through a lens of psychodynamic symbolism and the thematic contexts of Violence, Pain, Fear and Individualism vs Collectivism.
We can use these to examine the characters, the narrative structure, and—quite possibly the key or cornerstone element—the setting of Neon Genesis in order to understand this impenetrable anime.
Neon Genesis is about many things. Primarily, it is about our relationships with other people, and how we perceive, construct or conceptualize those relationships inside our own minds—our subjective understanding of our personal relationships.
The nature of these relationships may be that of friendship, that of duty, that of transaction, that of recognition-seeking, that of sexual attraction and so forth, but they are all forces acting upon us—forces of the Id and Super-Ego (sexuality, survival and society) acting upon the Ego.
However, these relationships are not necessarily shown explicitly through the interactions of the characters, and the tensions between characters may often be manifested in the major physical conflicts of the show through Angels and Eva’s
The Ego in Neon Genesis Evangelion is represented with Shinji. Shinji as the protagonist is the character we are supposed to relate to the most, the character we are supposed to invest in the most, and the character whom the entire story revolves around. Shinji (as many protagonists are) is a stand-in for our conscious sense of self, and Neon Genesis shows the subjective psychodynamics of this conscious sense of self relating to the world around us.
It shows us our relationship to society (Shinji and Gendo). It shows us our relationship to those we become close to (Shinji and Misato). It shows us our relationship to those we become romantically attracted to (Shinji and Rei).
This last one is arguably the most important. This romantic attraction, as I will show later, is the most powerful of these varying psychic/subjective forces. Attraction, love, sexuality is what drives us forward, into the harsh reality around us, to confront the horrors of the world (the Angels).
Violence is a physical tool in Neon Genesis. We see this with the angel penetrating into the inner sanctums of Tokyo-3 and penetrating the body of Eva Unit 01, and Eva Unit 01 tearing down the Absolute Terror (AT) Field down around the Angel and tearing open the Angel’s body with its hands.
Violence is also a psychological tool. It is the violence necessary to confront reality, to penetrate into the world, and the violence necessary to become closer to someone, to slowly tear down the boundaries between you and the other. It is finally the violence of sex, the ultimate state of vulnerability between two people.
And, of course, violence in all its forms causes pain, physical and psychological. We are at all times vulnerable to violence, vulnerable to assaults from others, vulnerable to intimacy, and vulnerable to the pain caused by closeness to others. This is Schopenhauer’s Hedgehog Dilemma.
Neon Genesis is about the individual and the collective.
We are all singular beings, and yet we are all pieces of something much larger. Very few humans could survive long without other humans, especially in the current organization of modern society. We are all individuals, but we are all individuals exist as one larger super-organism. As stated in Fullmetal Alchemist, “One is all, all is one.”
Humanity is made of many individuals, but humanity operates as a collective. Angels, by contrast, operate as individuals. Angels, you could say, operate as “hyper-individuals”. Though their motivations may align with the other angels’ motivations, each Angel operates autonomously, and are capable of waging one-man wars against the human collective.
Eva’s are the human response to the Angels’ hyper-individuality with their own hyper-individual constructions, but this necessarily requires the Eva’s to still be under the dominion of the broader collective, and the singular Eva’s would not be possible without this broader collective.
Finally, on a deeper examination, the setting of Neon Genesis reveals to us that we are not witnessing physical events when we watch Neon Genesis Evangelion, but we are actually witnessing internal, psychological or subjective events.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is a symbolic representation of the inner struggles, machinations and battles of the psyche, as experienced by the conscious Ego—Shinji.
In Neon Genesis, we witness the psychic theater of the unconscious, and the ambivalent, complex nature of Neon Genesis is the same as the ambivalent, complex nature of our own psyche.
Neon Genesis begins with the Sachiel, the first Angel, swimming through a ruined city flooded by the ocean. Hundreds of military tanks are lined up in near-perfect order along a highway overlooking the ocean. We see the ocean erupt in the distance with the emergence of Sachiel.
Next, we are shown an abandoned city, abandoned, presumably, because everyone has been evacuated. One of the only the only people left in the city is Misato, who is driving through empty streets searching for Shinji to bring him back to NERV headquarters.
Shinji is standing at an inoperable pay phone, wondering if he’ll be able to find Misato. Shinji catches a brief glimpse—a hallucination, most likely—of Rei. The ground and surrounding buildings shake, and Rei is gone. Shinji turns to see helicopters retreating into the city, followed by the towering, impossibly large Sachiel, relentlessly invading Tokyo-3.
We briefly get our first look inside NERV and are introduced to Shinji’s father, Gendo Ikari.
Next, Misato saves Shinji from an explosion caused by the Angel, Shinji gets in the car with Misato, and she begins driving him to NERV headquarters.
At the same time, the military has exhausted most of their resources in combating the Angel, with little to no effect, so they resort to a weapon referred to as an N2 mine. Although this N2 mine is roughly equivalent in power to a nuclear bomb, even the detonation of an N2 mine can do little more than briefly slow the progress of the Angel.
Because of this Ikari, the director of NERV, is given command over defeating the Angel. His intention is to use the Eva Unit 01 to combat the Angel.
Shinji and Misato, who were nearly killed by the detonation of the N2 mine, flip Misato’s car back over before continuing on to NERV headquarters.
The two of them reach NERV headquarters, descending in a car-elevator deep underground. Here, it is revealed that NERV headquarters belongs to Shinji’s father, Gendo. Though Shinji doesn’t know what his father does, he comments that his father’s work is important to the safety of the human race. As the two descend further, we learn about the tension between Shinji and his father, and their somewhat troubled past.
They go far enough underground to enter the Geofront. The Geofront is an underground city which is designed as both a fortress to defend against the Angels, and a fortress to house the Angel, Lillith. It is depicted as a vast cavern with a city hanging from the ceiling and a pyramid conjoined to an inverted pyramid, with everything cast in a golden, heavenly light.
Far, far underground now, in the depths of the pyramid housing NERV headquarters, Shinji and Misato encounter Ritsuko, who finally takes Shinji and Misato to Eva Unit 01—the first time we are fully introduced to the Evangelions, which are referred to as mankind’s last hope.
Far above the Eva Unit 01, Shinji’s father, Gendo, calls down to Shinji from an observation deck overlooking Shinji, Misato, Ritsuko and the Eva. Gendo tells them they are moving out. They will use Unit 01 to combat Sachiel. Shinji, who has never seen or even knew about Unit 01 until this moment, will pilot the Eva to battle the Angel.
Misato and Ritsuko argue about this, until Misato finally concedes that Shinji must pilot the Eva to save humanity. Shinji refuses. He is hurt that he would be asked to do such a thing—hurt that he is being pressured to perform a task so terrifying and harrowing as this—and he is hurt that this is the only reason his father even wanted to see him. Gendo doesn’t seem to care about Shinji except as a tool to be used.
When Shinji insists that he will not pilot the Eva—when the tool refuses to perform its task—Gendo coldly ignores Shinji and calls for Rei, another Eva pilot, to be brought to Unit 01 so she can battle the Angel. Misato and Ritsuko turn their backs on Shinji, and Shinji, now essentially abandoned because of his refusal, thinks to himself “I knew it, I’m not needed after all.”
Rei, who is badly wounded, is wheeled in on a gurney to Unit 01. She struggles to get out of the gurney, obviously in much pain. As Sachiel continues its assault on the aboveground city over NERV headquarters, parts of the building begin to collapse.
Unit 01, which has been completely motionless until now, reaches out to save Shinji from falling debris. Shinji holds the struggling, wounded Rei, and pulls back his hand to her blood on his fingers. Shinji, seeing this, repeats to himself, “I mustn’t run away”, and finally agrees to pilot the Eva.
After Shinji enters the cockpit and the Eva is prepared, Shinji and Unit 01 are sent aboveground to the surface of Tokyo-3 to confront the Angel. Here, episode 1 ends.
Breakdown of Episode 1
A lot of information has been packed into just this first episode, and this episode is evidence of the genius of Hideaki Anno’s brilliant writing. In just over 20 minutes, we’ve learned an enormous amount of information, and we can’t help but want to see what happens next. However, this means that there is a large volume of information that must be parsed apart in order to dissect this episode, but this concentration of information is reduced if we focus on our psychoanalytic and thematic framework of understanding Neon Genesis.
The opening shots, showing us the ruined, flooded city, the Angel, Sachiel, and the array of military tanks awaiting the Angel can be viewed as a number of things, but, overall, it is representative of our threat-response.
The ruined city is our past. It is our past society which has been destroyed by the Second Impact, an event which humanity is still recovering from. It is symbolic of previous generations and eras of humanity which once flourished, but fell to the wayside because they could not adapt. They are also the past generations that we have built our new society upon. While the ancient, classical, medieval and pre-modern societies of our history are either extinct or no longer exist as they once did, they have provided the foundation by which we’ve built our modern society, just as Tokyo-3 has been built nearly on top of this former city.
Though our new society has adapted to the threats we once faced, we now must face a new threat—albeit a threat that has likely adapted from the threats of our past.
The ocean that has flooded the ruined city is representative of both the unknown, and the dangers which emerge from the unknown, and of the unconscious—large, deep bodies of water being symbolic of the murky, lightless depths of our own psyche.
Sachiel is a new threat to our society, as humanity has never had conflicts with Angels in this manner, but it is a threat that has evolved from the calamity of the Second Impact.
The military that has been sent to combat the Angel and the evacuated city of Tokyo-3 are both symbolic of our cognitive threat responses.
When humans perceive a threat, when they go into fight or flight mode, their empathy, their sociability and their rationality are all shut off, and they rely on their instincts or their learned defense mechanisms. When the Angel emerges from the ocean (either the external unknown or the internal unconscious), the civilians of Tokyo-3 evacuate (our prefrontal conscious minds evacuating) and the military is mobilized to combat the threat (our survival instincts and our defense mechanisms).
However, our conventional threat-response mechanisms are incapable of responding to this novel threat (conventional weapons, even our most powerful conventional weapons, doing nothing to combat the Angel).
Because of this, humanity must adapt, but how can we adapt to this?
To defeat a monster, one become a monster.
Shinji is brought to NERV (German for “nerve”) by Misato. While it has been argued by some that Rei is Shinji’s Anima—a Jungian term describing the feminine aspect of the male psyche, and a psycho-spiritual guide of the Unconscious—Misato is at the very least another aspect or manifestation of Shinji’s Anima. Misato as a character at the very least functions as Jiminy Cricket functioned in Pinocchio—as our moral compass. Shown in Shinji’s relationship with Misato, our relationship to our own moral compasses is not an easy one. There are conflicts, misunderstandings and personality clashes between us and the voice telling us who we should be.
We then meet Ritsuko, who is the scientific, logical and introverted foil to the intuitive, emotional and extroverted Misato. Misato’s character here deepens in contrast to Ritsuko, and the two can be seen as representative of the left-brain/right-brain lateralization of the brain. Nonetheless, the two of them can both be seen as different manifestations or incarnations of Shinji’s Anima, and the act in conjunction as Shinji’s moral compass.
The two guide Shinji deeper and deeper into NERV headquarters. NERV HQ is highly symbolic of the brain and the psyche (Nerv being German for “nerve”, and the underground architecture being symbolic of the underground architecture of the brain).
Shinji is tasked by his father Gendo to pilot the Evangelion to defeat the Angel.
Shinji is the Ego—the conscious perceiver.
Gendo is the Super-Ego—society, symbolized by God the Father (recall Gendo speaking to Shinji from on high).
The Evangelion is the monster we must become. Eva Unit 01 is, in essence, a giant suit of biomechanical armor (defense-mechanism) and a living weapon (a monster).
Shinji—as everyone is—has been tasked by society to confront the threat that society is faced with. The new generations of humanity must step forward to confront the problems that the older generations of society could not overcome, and possibly the problems the older generations have caused.
The Evangelion is the suit of armor we must all wear as we confront the world and its horrors. It’s the brave face we must wear, the armor of conviction, duty and love. The Evangelion is the person we must become in order to save society.
What is important to note here is that Shinji did not pilot the Eva until he met Rei. He refused to obey his father. He refused to obey Ritsuko. He refused to obey Misato. But he willingly volunteered to pilot the Eva when he met Rei.
Shinji here retains his individuality by conforming to society’s standards and needs, but only because he aligns his own values and desires with society’s. By helping society attain their goals, Shinji achieves his own goals.
If Rei is Shinji’s Anima (Rei meaning “spirit” or “ghost” in Japanese, among other things) then Shinji decides to pilot the Eva out of his own, deeper sense of morality and psychic individuality—which supersedes that of society’s. He is not acting out of duty to the collective—Shinji is acting out of duty to his own psyche: to his own spirit.
This concludes part 1 of the analysis. In part 2, I will discuss episode two, delve deeper into the characters, the Angel and Eva, and the setting, then bring the ideas together to reinforce my broader analysis of Neon Genesis.